For those whose babies were born during or just before the pandemic, parental leave hasn’t been anything like they’d imagined.
There’s no travel to see out-of-town grandparents, no baby song circles, no brunches with other families and no new friends from parent groups to commiserate with about the sleepless night and starting solids.
As a result, the babies and toddlers who would normally get passed from hip-to-hip at family gatherings — getting to know different faces and places — have mostly had just their parents in their worlds.
The good news is that’s OK, said Nikki Martyn, head of early childhood studies at the University of Guelph-Humber in Toronto. “Certainly their experiences are strange, but it’s more strange for us. For them, it’s just the way their life is,” Martyn said.
At that early stage of life, the most important relationship is the one they have with their parents or other loving caregiver, she said. They learn what they need through their interactions with those caregivers.
“The child doesn’t need a lot of diverse experiences in terms of development.”
Martyn, who holds a PhD in early childhood education and child psychology, said she’s more worried about the parents than their babies.
“Becoming a parent under this stress and without the support of grandparents or aunts and uncles or loved ones or friends, especially if it’s the first child, that’s … the tricky part,” said Martyn.
New parenthood is anxiety-provoking, exhausting and overwhelming in the best of times, she said, “and then on top of that, there’s the virus and all the additional pressure and, how do I go grocery shopping?”
Stress, anxiety and depression can affect a primary caregiver’s ability to fully attend to a baby’s needs, doing “that relational dance that’s so important in infancy” where the parent responds to the baby’s cues to figure out if they need comfort, a diaper change or a nap.
That means it’s vital new parents make a point of connecting with others in whatever means are possible right now, whether that means a phone call, Zoom chat or distanced sidewalk chat — the kind of things that buffer against overwhelm and isolation.
Emily Antze and her husband, Alex MacLeod, had their first child, Theodore, in October 2020.
While she said they consider themselves fortunate because MacLeod is able to work from home and they see one set of grandparents who live nearby, it’s still not the experience she pictured.
“I really imagined myself being always at mom groups and baby swimming lessons and the library and the early years centre and all of this kind of thing,” Antze said.
They moved to a new neighbourhood with lots of young families recently and Antze said she assumed she’d be able to make lots of new local mom friends. “So that’s been really kind of disappointing.”
During some warm weather between lockdowns when Theo was first born, Antze joined a group of new parents at a park where everyone had their baby on a blanket socially distanced from the others.
“It was the one little glimpse I got of what it would be like to share with other moms about, you know, ‘How are your kids sleeping?’ and ‘What do you do for sleep training?’ and ‘Which daycares are good locally?’” she said.
Many in the group had babies born early in the pandemic and were keen for their now-mobile little ones to see others the same age.
“The babies would set off crawling across the grass towards each other and reaching for each other. And the moms would kind of like just grab them just before they touch the other baby and pull them back.”
She said it’s been “sad and hard” for both her and her husband to start their parenting journey this way.
“I think we’re just feeling bored and isolated, and as our son gets more and more exciting and fun to be around, we’re really sad that the people we care about don’t get to see him,” she said.
“(We’re also) missing my in-laws in Nova Scotia. He’s the first grandchild on that side and a first great-grandchild — he actually has a great-grandmother who is in her mid-90s.”
Jessica Sommerville, a professor in the department of psychology at the University of Toronto whose research focuses on social and cognitive development in infancy and early childhood, also said the isolation has been far harder on parents than it is on babies and toddlers.
Parents who are worried about their little one’s social development should take heart in the fact that even well before the pandemic, there was still “tremendous variability” in how kids were socialized in their early years.
“There are some kids who are at home all of the way up until they step into a kindergarten classroom. Maybe they don’t have an extended family around,” she said. “And there’s just the opposite, those who have a million contacts.”
While some kids may come out of this a little shyer than they might have been otherwise in group settings, those effects aren’t likely to last, said Sommerville.
“In many ways, what we probably should be thinking about first is how can we take care of ourselves, because that’s one of the greatest determinants of the quality of relationships with our kids.”
She said it’s especially important for parents to do whatever they possibly can to enhance their well being and lower their stress levels.
That means letting the dishes sit for a while if it means you can take a shower or call a shower while the baby’s content.
The messy sink can wait, but you can’t.